On Sunday, January 7, 2018, at 8 pm local time, SpaceX launched the secretive Zuma mission from Launch Complex 40, and shortly after landed the first stage booster B1043[a], version 1.2, block 4, at Landing Zone 1, Cape Canveral. This mission, contracted by Northrop Grumman, has a ridiculous level of secrecy, which means we learn nothing from official sources.
On Monday, January 8, 2018, reports were made that the Zuma payload failed to separate from the second stage, and the mission ended in failure as the payload re-entered and burned up with the second stage over the Indian ocean. Claims were made that this represented a billion dollar loss.
In the absense of official information, what do we know?
From SpaceX, we know that the first stage worked as expected, that the seond stage ignited as expected, and that the payload fairing separated as expected. From the Falcon 9 User's Guide, we learn that the customer can provide the second stage separation mechanism, at their own risk, which was apparently the case with Zuma. From aircraft pilots and ground observers in Sudan, we have indications that the second stage worked correctly, and vented excess fuel and oxidizer prior to re-entry over the Indian ocean. Finally, we know that this mission was delayed and rescheduled many times, from November 16, then November 17 2017, but each launch window began at 8:00 pm.
So now the fun begins, as I speculate on what the Zuma mission may have been.
The most likely scenario is that the Zuma mission was a test of the Northrop Grumman Eagle-3 satellite buss and rapid satellite replacement capabilities, and that the mission failed as described above. Boring.
More exciting, is the idea of a secret spaceplane orbital return test, landing at Diego Garcia, for example. The nightime launch window is consistent with denying telescopic (orbital or ground) examination of the payload. SpaceX has experience launching the X-37B (B1040[a]v1.2/B4, September 7, 2017), and the SNC Dream Chaser has passed drop tests. I can envision an unmanned spaceplane test being conducted prior to manned flights, and being a successful landing, rather than a failure. The failure reported woud be a cover story to account for the absense of a satellite in orbit on Monday.
Similarly exciting is the chance of an in-orbit, stealthy, satellite intercept/service test. Northrop Grumman and future subsidiary Orbital ATK have developed expertise in this area. A successful salvage of the Chinese space station would be an interesting development and demonstration of capability.
Finally, as a Star Trek fan, I suggest the flight test of a reactionless or warp drive (Zefram Cochrane). This disruptive technology would certainly justify the high levels of secrecy seen with Zuma, and explain the project name as a silly pun (Zoom-a). Orbital ATK has long had a Star Trek culture, with headquarters on 45101 Warp Drive, Dulles, VA 20166. In this scenario, warp drives need to operate in hard vacuum. The presence of gasses spoils the warp drive traction in a fashion similar to sand or mud spoiling tire traction to a road. The mission profile would be a simple outbound jaunt to one light hour or so (roughly Saturn's orbital distance), tracked by Arecibo. In this scenario, the November delays were not due to faring issues, but rather, the slow recovery of Arecibo from damage from hurricane Maria. Further interesting clues involve the mystery funders for Arecibo, who prevented the decommissioning and defunding of this facility. Mystery funders alway catch my interest.
Linkfest provided below, links working as of January 17, 2018.
Zuma Initial Launch Dates
SpaceX Zuma Launch and First stage Landing
Falcon User's Guide Version 2.0
SpaceFlight101 November Zuma Article
Zuma Mission Failure Reports
Eagle 3 Sales Blurb
Four Page Eagle Blurb
Grumman to Acquire Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK Space Systems Blurb - note Cygnus
Mission Extension Vehicle
Orbital ATK address is 45101 Warp Drive, Dulles, VA 20166
Arecibo Wiki, 2.6 Light Hour Radar Limit, Funding Shortfalls
Arecibo Mystery Funders
Arecibo Hurricane Damage
Arecibo Hurricane Maria Damage
SpaceX Launches X-37b
SNC Dream Chaser Wikipedia
Dream Chaser Glide Test Completed
Dream Chaser ISS Resupply Contract